Kansas City suffers from severe urban heat. Research now underway might help leaders address it.

Kansas City’s downtown and industrial neighborhoods can be several degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas

By: - August 30, 2021 4:00 am

Janice Bell, left, and Barbara Elliott hand out water and snacks as part of the Salvation Army’s response to extreme heat in Kansas City. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The strain excessive heat was putting on the streets of Kansas City was obvious during a streak of days earlier this month when peak temperatures stayed above 90 degrees for days in a row.

In and around downtown, volunteers with the Salvation Army handed out water bottles just after noon, hoping to help those without homes — or anyone they encountered — get hydrated before the hottest part of the day.

It was Aug. 11, the third day of a heat advisory covering much of Missouri and eastern Kansas, and even by noon, the air was hot and heavy. The heat index was expected to climb over 100 degrees. In the Kansas City area, it turned out to be the hottest day yet in August.

And in barely shaded parts of downtown, the West Bottoms and industrial areas along the Missouri River, the excessive heat felt even worse. Those who don’t have a place to go to cool off were “just barely making it,” said Janice Bell, a volunteer.

“Just imagine being out there all morning, evening and night and all you’re going to get is what you get from us for the rest of the day,” Bell said.

Kansas City, more than most, falls victim to the urban heat island effect: the bubble of heat created around cities when heat is trapped in pavement and buildings and re-released rather than being cooled by vegetation and water. Kansas City was ranked 7th on a list of 60 cities with the most intense urban heat islands. Surface temperatures can be up to 13 degrees hotter in the city than surrounding rural locations.

But even that measurement can vary widely depending on neighborhood and tree cover. Typically, neighborhoods with lower average incomes and heavily industrialized areas are most severely affected.

To get a more detailed look, Kansas City is part of a campaign funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to measure how heat is distributed through the city. Volunteers collected data over the course of three hours in the early morning, late afternoon and evening earlier this month to map the ground-level temperature covering much of the Jackson County portion of Kansas City — bounded by the stateline on the west, the Missouri River on the north and Interstate 435 on the east and south.

At the end, Fengpeng Sun, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who is leading the project, said there will be a map that can help inform both residents and policy makers.

“You know, we talk about climate change — it’s not only happening in the Arctic,” Sun said. “In our backyard, in the neighborhood, climate change is happening, so we have more and more heat wave events.”

Fengpeng Sun, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, helps a volunteer attach a temperature sensor to map urban heat in Kansas City’s core. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

While Sun didn’t make predictions about what neighborhoods would be hottest, a report commissioned last year by the Mid-America Regional Council said the Main Street corridor has some of the highest levels of heat vulnerability. Parts of downtown and the Crossroads Arts District are particularly void of trees, making them susceptible to heat. The city’s historically Black neighborhoods on the East Side are also susceptible to heat vulnerability based on socioeconomic stress.

Urban heat islands increase the risk of heat exhaustion or heat strokes and can aggravate a host of underlying health conditions. Heat waves can create huge electrical bills as residents’ air conditioners struggle to keep up. A study several years ago found Kansas City residents pay some of the largest utility bills relative to their income.

The detailed map of heat itself can show local officials where they need to take action to offset urban heat, Sun said.

“Hopefully with this, they are able to protect those most vulnerable neighborhoods and communities from exposure to the extreme heat … and hopefully that will also help them to design the long-term climate resilience planning and to help our local communities to deal with climate change,” Sun said.

Gerald Shechter, Kansas City’s sustainability coordinator, said those readings would help inform the city as it updates its climate protection plan to include social equity and environmental justice elements. 

“In every other city where it’s been measured, it corresponds with vulnerable populations, whether that be income or people who are elderly,” Shechter said. 

That, Shechter said, is an equity and health issue. 

“It’s good to know where those kind of pockets are so that hopefully the city can begin planning to address those pockets to alleviate, as much as feasible, increasing heat problems.” 

Sensors, attached to the windows of volunteers’ cars, took temperature and humidity readings around Kansas City’s urban core to map the city’s heat island earlier this month. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

Heat vulnerability

While death tolls from hurricanes, tornadoes and floods draw attention, heat has been the leading cause of weather-related deaths, on average, over the past 30 years.

Elizabeth Friedman, the medical director of the environmental health program at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, said heat waves are associated with premature mortality. And it’s not just heat exhaustion and heat strokes.

She said dehydration stemming from heat waves can increase the risk for acute renal failure, kidney damage and declining blood pressure. The risk of an emergency room visit for a stroke or cardiac arrhythmia increases.

And the economic insecurity brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, only raises the risk.

“We’re seeing a huge jump in housing insecurity … and with that comes less access to cool spaces, and when people are forced to be in 100 degree weather heat, that’s when their risks really do go up — kids with chronic diseases, the elderly, people who are on medication to manage blood pressure, things like that,” Friedman said. 

It was already 93 degrees just after noon as Fred Angotti maneuvered the Salvation Army truck around downtown. But the heat index was 100. During stretches when the heat index is expected to top 105 degrees for several days in a row, the nonprofit sends volunteers like him and Bell to hand out water.

“I get concerned when the heat is this bad because they don’t have any place to go to get out of the heat,” Bell said.

In Carl Stafford’s neighborhood, Gregory Ridge, far south of downtown, he said his neighbors’ air conditioners have to work overtime to keep up because there’s not enough tree cover to keep the neighborhood cool.

That’s harder to articulate than visible natural disasters, like the wildfires out west. But Stafford said he can see the difference between neighborhoods in historically white areas of Kansas City with abundant trees and areas east of Troost Avenue, the city’s historic dividing line between predominantly white and Black neighborhoods. He said the city’s East Side is largely concrete and “neglected.”

“The heat, the brightness — you can see the heat reflecting off of stuff,” Stafford said.

When development comes to white areas of Kansas City, effort is made to plant trees, but the same isn’t true east of Troost.

“The agenda to keep people oppressed and in poverty — the heat island effect is another tool that is being used,” he said.

Mitigating heat 

Easing the effects of the urban heat island involves several seemingly simple tasks: painting roofs and paving roads with lighter colors and planting trees.

But implementing those ideas can be difficult because they cross so many state and local governmental departments.

“We talk about the tree canopy, and the building department isn’t going to really care about that. I can talk about paving, but that’s going to be dictated by … regulations,” said Jeremy Knoll, an associate principal at BNIM, an architecture firm in Kansas City.

“So there’s not an enormous amount of regulation or incentive to do better,” he said.

Stafford said most residents in his neighborhood are elderly. It’s difficult to convince them to take on the expense of planting trees and being responsible for trimming and maintaining them. 

Kansas City has less than 31% tree canopy coverage, said Kristin Riott, executive director of Bridging the Gap, a local environmental nonprofit. The American Forest Association, she said, recommends 40% coverage. Kansas City’s coverage isn’t just insufficient. It’s declining.

“We’re losing more trees every year than we’re planting and by a darn good margin, so when we look at a warmer future, that’s one of the things we’re concerned about,” Riott said.

She said the city needs to plant 27,000 trees every year for the coming decades to make a dent, but the city has nowhere near enough funds to do that.

Meanwhile, for low-income residents, hot days pose a huge cost burden. She said for some of the most severely cost-burdened residents, utility bills can cost as high as 15% of their income.  

“These are people that are having to choose between running the air conditioner and eating,” Riott said, “so it’s really absolutely the intersection of racial injustice and environmental issues, social injustice and environmental issues.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.